The popularization of Gurdjieff's teachings is arguably a mixed blessing. Although larger audiences are now exposed to his ideas and practices, there is the real possibility that those who study his ideas outside the framework of an esoteric school with qualified teachers will experience little spiritual benefit and may in fact misunderstand the teachings.
Fourth Way author William Patterson sounds a cautionary warning about the consequences of injecting esoteric teachings into the mainstream as “these ideas and practices are powerful in themselves, and when introduced into secular life they will necessarily be taken over by the ego and used for its own glorification and the domination of others.” (1)
Gurdjieff himself clearly recognized that spiritual teachings could deviate from their original impulse toward serious distortion:
Think how many turns the line of development of forces must have taken to come from the Gospel preaching of love to the inquisition; or to go from the ascetics of the early centuries studying esoteric Christianity to the scholastics who calculated how many angels could be placed on the point of a needle. (2)
Gurdjieff took a number of steps to ensure the accurate transmission of his ideas to future generations. He preserved his teachings in written form, through music and the Movements, and trained a core group of pupils that he deemed capable of teaching and guiding others.
In the years following Gurdjieff’s death in 1949, senior students under the direction of Jeanne de Salzmann continued the Work and established the Gurdjieff Foundation as the authoritative body responsible for the dissemination of Gurdjieff's teachings. But despite the efforts of those entrusted with the preservation of Gurdjieff's teaching in its original form, divisions among his students developed as differing interpretations of his ideas emerged. As John Bennett observes, this is a common, if not inevitable, pattern:
History shows that whenever a spiritual leader, small or great, leaves the earthly scene, his followers invariably divide into factions. Each claims to preserve and transmit what the teacher has brought to it, but one faction understands this duty literally; preserving every word, every memory, every injunction as if they were crystallized and fixed forever. Another faction secretly or overtly rejoices to be set free from the constraint of the teacher’s presence, and goes off to do whatever their own impulses dictate. Yet another seeks to keep alive the spirit of what has been given, and is prepared to see the outward forms changed and even distorted if only something new can grow. (3)
Divisions that developed between Gurdjieff's successors have continued to the present day. Although the Gurdjieff Foundation is generally regarded as the authoritative source for the transmission of Gurdjieff's teachings, many other groups, organizations and centres associate themselves with Gurdjieff's name. Some of these are led by individuals who studied with students of Gurdjieff, while others have no connection with a recognized line of transmission originating from Gurdjieff. Other groups, schools and organizations have co-opted his name, including “implicit and explicit pretenders to Gurdjieff’s mantle . . . who in fact never met him.” (4) And some who claim to be Fourth Way “teachers” are clearly fraudulent. This proliferation of groups, teachers and organizations associated with the name of Gurdjieff poses a significant challenge to the discriminating spiritual seeker who is in search of authentic teachings.
(1) William Patterson Taking With the Left Hand (Fairfax, California: Arete Communications, 1998), p. 40.
(2) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p.129.
(3) John Bennett Witness: The Autobiography of John G. Bennett (Tucson: Omen Press, 1974), p. 233.
(4) James Moore Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth (Rockport, Massachusetts: Element Books, 1991), p. 370.
(5) Jacob Needleman describes the structure of the Gurdjieff Foundation in a web document “G.I. Gurdjieff and His School”:
The main centers of study remain Paris, New York and London because of the relatively large concentration of first-generation Gurdjieff pupils in these cities. Most of the groups maintain close correspondence with the principal centers, usually in relationship to one or two of the pupils who travel to specific cities in order to guide the work of these groups. The general articulation of these various groups, both within America and throughout the world, is a cooperative one, rather than one based on strictly sanctioned jurisdictional control. There are also groups who no longer maintain close correspondence and operate independently.
(6) J. Needleman “G.I. Gurdjieff and His Schooll”
(7) J. Needleman “G.I. Gurdjieff and His School”
(8) See Walter Driscoll, ed. Gurdjieff: An Annotated Bibliography (New York: Garland, 1985).
(9) Donald Hoyt “The Movement of Transmission”
(10) James Moore, author of the biography Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth, was cast out of the Gurdjieff Society of London in 1994 after penning an article in a scholarly journal (“Moveable Feasts: The Gurdjieff Work” Religion Today, Volume 9(2), 1994) which sharply criticized both innovations introduced by Jeanne de Salzmann emphasizing meditative sitting and a passive opening to higher energies and the 1992 revision of Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson spearheaded by de Salzmann and senior leaders of the New York Foundation. Interestingly, the revision was also met with a strong negative reaction by many Work groups and teachers, notably A.L. Staveley of Two Rivers Farm, Oregon.
(11) Dr. Michel de Salzmann succeeded his mother as head of the Institut Gurdjieff in Paris following her death in 1990. During the next decade, until his death in 2001, he convened a number of international conferences in Europe and America to coordinate the activities of disparate Gurdjieff groups. However, some felt uncomfortable with his succession as it seemed to solidify the existence of an “extensible dynastic line.”
(12) Anna Challenger Philosophy and Art in Gurdjieff's Beelzebub (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002), p.114.
(13) Scholar Anna Challenger explores these issues in Philosophy and Art in Gurdjieff's Beelzebub (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002, p.114):
Gurdjieff frequently emphasized that no living organism, such as a teaching is, remains in a state of stasis: all organic systems are perpetually in flux, either decaying or evolving, degenerating or regenerating; but nothing living remains of its own accord in a stable state over time. And only devolution occurs mechanically according to the natural laws of entropy. “Each teaching is subject to the ravages of time unless great care is taken in maintaining the original vibration.”
(14) Kathleen Speeth The Gurdjieff Work (New York: Jeremy Tarcher, 1989), p. 113.
(15) Some practitioners of the Work point to the apparent inability of contemporary Fourth Way teachers to tailor their teaching to the individual requirements of their students. Francois Stahly examines this problem in his essay “An Exacting Way” in Jacob Needleman and George Baker, eds. Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and His Teaching (New York: Continuum, 1996), p. 413:
To my knowledge, today nobody in the teaching allows himself to intervene directly with people, in a different way for each one. A specific shock, destined for a certain person, such as are described in the writings about Gurdjieff -- I don't see anyone practicing that today.
(16) Gurdjieff himself clearly indicated that it was not possible to transmit the essence of his teaching by or from books alone.
(17) Richard Smoley and Jay Kinney Hidden Wisdom (New York: Penguin/Arkana, 1999), p. 224.
(18) John Bennett Witness: The Autobiography of John G. Bennett (Tucson: Omen Press, 1974), p. 246.
(19) Gurdjieff biographer James Webb warns of the possible adverse effects of Fourth Way psychological methods when applied by a leader who is only partially developed in The Harmonious Circle: The Lives and Works of G.I. Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky and Their Followers (Boston: Shambhala, 1987, pp. 567-568):
For the Work to work, the pupil must be hit from his blind side; indeed part of the process will be to point out that he has a blind side . . . The Work operates by surprise attack, and if this attack is overdone, it may merely shock the pupil into a position of dependence which he or she will never be able to break. There must have been numerous unfortunates temporarily or semi-permanently warped for ordinary life by their experiences in the Work.
(20) Joel Friedlander “The Work Today” Gnosis No. 20, Summer 1991, p. 40.
(21) Frank Sinclair, a past president of the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York with many years experience observing various Work groups, writes in Without Benefit of Clergy (Xlibris, 2005, p. 15) that many group leaders are “subject to weaknesses and sins, not to speak of downright ignorance, appalling self-conceit, unexamined arrogance, and presumptuous elitism: how many there are who profess to have been “specially prepared” and singled out (often only by themselves) to carry the torch.”
(22) An example of a cult masking as a Fourth Way group is the Gurdjieff Ouspensky Center, also known as the Fellowship of Friends. The organization refers to its studies as a Gurdjieff/Ouspensky teaching (although Ouspensky is clearly their major inspiration) and claims that it has expanded the scope of these teachings by introducing cultural and philosophical material from the world’s great spiritual traditions and thinkers. This organization differs from most Gurdjieff groups in their active recruitment of followers and there have been a number of serious allegations about the organization and in particular the leader of the movement, Robert Burton.
See James Moore “Gurdjieffian Groups in Britain” (Religion Today, Volume 3(2), 1986, pp. 1-4), Theodore Nottingham “The Fourth Way and Inner Transformation” (Gnosis No. 20, Summer 1991, p. 22) and William Patterson Taking With the Left Hand (Fairfax, California: Arete Communications, 1998).
(23) Charles Tart Waking Up: (Boston: Shambhala, 1986), pp. 288-289.
(24) William Patterson Taking With the Left Hand (Fairfax, California: Arete Communications, 1998), pp. 9-10.
(25) Fourth Way author John Shirley believes that Gurdjieff's teaching is still vibrant and responsive to humanity’s current needs. In Gurdjieff: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas (New York: Jeremy Tarcher, 2004, p. 274), he writes:
The benefits of the Gurdjieff Work are quite real . . . People working on themselves keep things more in perspective in times of crisis . . . and they don’t identify so easily with every apparent insult or emotional upset that comes along. Objective about themselves, they’re likely to be more compassionate to other people, and that benefits everyone.
(26) Jacob Needleman discusses these qualities in the web document “G.I. Gurdjieff and His School”:
By voluntarily subjecting oneself to such a work of self-study, the student may come to realize that not only is one responsible for one’s own work, and that on one level the student can and must rely only on himself or herself but also that on a larger scale the student is entirely dependent on the help of others similarly engaged . . . Related to this orientation is the basic Gurdjieff idea of a “Way in Life.” As practiced by the Foundation, it means that the student seeks to understand life as it is, without attempting to alter anything in the name of inner development. Relationships to family, vocation, personal ties, and obligations are, at least to start with, left intact both for the material they provide for self-understanding and for the ultimate value and force that all human relationships contain when they are engaged in with a more central and harmonious attention.
(27) Francois Stahly “An Exacting Way” in Jacob Needleman and George Baker, eds. Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and His Teaching (New York: Continuum, 1996), p. 412.
(28) C.S. Nott Journey Through This World (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1969), p. 248.
(29) P.D Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 287.
(30) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 294.
(31) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 294.
(32) James Moore “The Enneagram: A Developmental Study” Religion Today Vol. 5(3), 1990, p. 3.
(33) Claudio Naranjo concurred with this position in an interview published in Gnosis magazine (“The Distorted Enneagram: The GNOSIS Interview with Claudio Naranjo” Gnosis No. 24, Fall 1996, p. 24.):
You ask me what I think about the enneagram being taught “outside the laws of the oral tradition” and “reduced to a mere psychological point of view.” Certainly no one in the genuine esoteric tradition would think of teaching without permission to do so; and such permission traditionally does not come from years alone, courses taken, or passing exams, as in secular universities. It surely requires personal readiness and right relationship to the teacher.
(34) Idries Shah writes in The Commanding Self (London: Octagon Press, 1994, pp. 286287) that:
It is, however, only if you are in harmony with the meaning of the enneagon (and the great diagram of which it is a part) that you can know what you are looking for. Merely to seek familiar representations for an enneagon which you can recognize by its shape as your ‘enneagram’ is ridiculous. Numbers and diagrams are meaningful to us only when we are associated with their reality.
(35) Gurdjieff described the distinction between essence and personality in a conversation with his students recorded by C.S. Nott in Teachings of Gurdjieff: The Journal of a Pupil (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1962, p. 65):
Essence is everything that we are born with: heredity, type, character, nature; essence is the real part of us. Essence does not change . . .Personality is an accidental thing, which we begin to acquire as soon as we are born; it is determined by our surroundings, outside influences, education, and so on; it is like a dress you wear, a mask; an accidental thing changing with changing circumstances. It is the false part of man.
(36) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), pp. 283-284.
(37) Frank Sinclair Of the Life Aligned (U.S.A.: Xlibris, 2009), p. 20.
(38) Scholarly studies of Gurdjieff’s life and his teachings are not without value and should not be summarily dismissed. Many students of the Work have written or edited books based on original research and utilizing standard academic methods of investigation and reporting [Rodney Collin The Theory of Celestial Influence; John Bennett Gurdjieff: Making a New World; James Moore Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth; William Patterson Ladies of the Rope; Paul Beekman Taylor Gurdjieff and Orage: Brothers in Elysium; Keith Buzzell Explorations in Active Mentation; Jacob Needleman The Inner Journey: Views From the Gurdjieff Work]. A number of independent scholars have also made meaningful contributions to the Gurdjieff corpus [James Webb The Harmonious Circle; Michel Waldberg Gurdjieff: An Approach to His Ideas; Charles Tart Waking Up; Anna Challenger Philosophy and Art in Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub].
(39) Frank Sinclair Without Benefit of Clergy (U.S.A.: Xlibris, 2005), p. 224.
(40) Robert de Ropp Church of the Earth (New York: Delta Books, 1974), pp. 156-157.
(41) Adaptation and innovation would seem at first glance to be a most promising approach. A meaningful spiritual teaching should be responsive to the needs of contemporary humanity and relevant to the social and cultural frameworks of the time. In the words of Charles Tart (Waking Up (Boston: Shambhala, 1986, p. 247):
To be effective, a Fourth Way teacher has to transcend fixed forms. To simply lecture in a traditional way in “time-honored” words or to perform demonstrations or exercises the way “it has always been done” is often to lose much effectiveness. Individuals can be very different from one another. The general structure of people's consensus consciousness in the same culture can vary greatly from generation to generation. A formulation or exercise that was very effective for your own teacher or for you may now work well for some people but be completely ineffective or even misleading for others.
(42) Anna Challenger has carefully explored the possible future direction of the Work in Philosophy and Art in Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002, p. 115):
The only viable option, then, for those who would preserve this extraordinary body of lived wisdom and keep it flowing along the lines of its original vibration, is continually and consciously to rethink, regauge, and reapply it; or, in the words of Lord Pentland: “It means organizing it; and re-organizing it; and re-organizing it, in accordance with the appearance of new pressures and forces in the environment, both from very high up and from the general environment.”
(43) Anna Challenger Philosophy and Art in Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002), p. 114.
(44) C.S. Nott Journey Through This World (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1969), p. 249.
(45) Idries Shah The Sufis (London: Octagon Press, 1984), p. 61.
(46) C.S. Nott comments about this situation in Journey Through This World (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1969, pp. 248-249):
As a body of real ideas spreads and more people become interested, groups increase, and they have to be organized. The ‘Teaching’ is one thing, organization another. There must be organization but inevitably some become identified with it, become identified with their own attitude to what they call ‘the Work’; some even forget what the organization is for. This is also according to law. But serious strivers, while recognizing the necessity for regulations, can remain unidentified with organization and remember their real aim.
Where the soil is rich weeds grow in plenty. Already there are appearing those who profess to expound Gurdjieff’s ideas and to teach the movements – people who do not have the smallest idea of the inner teaching; whom Gurdjieff calls ‘stealers of essence values.’
(47) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 313.
(48) Some argue that Gurdjieff’s teachings were transmitted and intended for certain people, in a certain form, at a certain time and for a specific purpose. Idries Shah describes the inability of most current Work practitioners to make the teaching relevant to contemporary times in Knowing How to Know (London: Octagon Press, 1998, p. 120):
People take ‘ideas’ which were intended to be ‘prescribed’ for specific situations and groups to enable them to learn. These they imagine are ‘laws’ or perennial truths. The result is a mechanical system which is next to useless.
(49) Anna Challenger Philosophy and Art in Gurdjieff’'s Beelzebub (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002), p. 9.
(50) Jacob Needleman “Introduction” in Jacob Needleman (ed.) The Inner Journey: Views from the Gurdjieff Work (Sandpoint, Idaho: Morning Light Press, 2008), pp. xx-xxi.
(51) C.S. Nott Journey Through This World (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1969), p. 238.
(52) Idries Shah The Commanding Self (London: Octagon Press, 1994), p. 6.